Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Shows I haven't talked about

I've waited to blog on a couple of shows I've seen this summer because my intention was to write a review of them to post at Epinions and then refer to it here. However, while I've written my notes and outlines for the reviews, I haven't yet gotten around to writing the reviews.

So here are a few comments on those shows that I've been procrastinating on:


The Ledges Playhouse and the Lansing Civic Players jointly produced this popular musical. One of the very healthy signs in our local community of late has been the increasing amount of collaboration that is taking place. It's something that can mean only good things for all involved--though that's a topic for a longer blog entry in part because it's a fairly complex topic that carries its own dangers with it.

This marked the first time I have seen Godspell in its entirety. It's one of those elegant shows in that it is set up in such a way that people of many faiths can embrace it. It's easy to see why it is done in churches and why it is equally enjoyed in secular venues. Those who are not religious will point to its universal themes while those who are religious will be reminded that their religious beliefs carry weight because they are universal.

Because the plot is fairly fluid, this is a show that can be transformed into almost as many different settings as a Shakespeare play. The Ledges/LCP show placed it in a back alley with the fringe of society wandering about both on and off stage. It was a loving and clever touch to make Jesus' beloved those who are homeless, mentally challenged, gang members, and flesh hawkers.

It's also a show that requires the actors to be fairly versatile as they must swing into different roles that are not totally distinct from each other. In fact, the show is almost better served by having everyone except Jesus possess characters that are somewhat amorphous.

This particular production also shined in that everyone in it had beautiful voices. They also moved well as an ensemble, creating a picture that didn't draw your eye to any particular stroke, but rather let you take in all of it at once.

Love Person

There's so much to say about this show that it is going to have to wait for a review (especially since I have that review at least partially written!). It's a show that deserves a fairly deep look at the script as well as a discussion of this particular performance of it.

Icarus Falling performed in the small stage at the Black Child and Family Institute. The stage itself worked well for the show, but the stairs and heat would eventually pose a challenge for many of the audience members.

Love Person is one of those scripts that is highly multi-layered and it is easily apparent that the playwright has done multiple workshopping of the show, changing it and adding new depths with each exploration of it. At one time she had planned to come see the Lansing production, but that didn't come to be.

Back to Methuselah

The night I saw this show it had moved indoors because we were getting some rain at the time they had to make the decision about where to perform it and the sky was glowering with threats that later withdrew.

It's a show that actually worked quite well with black curtained backgrounds (though we did go out and view the beautifully painted flats that were intended to be the set). Given what I've heard other people describe of the show, we may have been fortunate to have seen the show indoors. It sounds like we had a slightly different experience than many others who saw it on other nights.

The production has definitely inspired me to go and read the entire five-play cycle. There's a lot of meat in the language of the play and I would like more time to digest both the words and ideas found in it.

As I review each of the above three shows, I'll post a link and a quick note here.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Only in live performances

There are many things that can happen only in a live performance that do not occur in pre-recorded art forms. This weekend, I was able to witness two of them.

I've been spending my weekends at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, reveling in the opportunity to watch not only both of my guys, but the wealth of talented actors performing Macbeth and Henry V. This past weekend, there were two particular events of note.

"Do I hear chimes?"

The first involved my husband and was one of those moments that actors talk about, but rarely have the opportunity to do.

Richard is playing the porter in Macbeth. His porter wanders through the audience before opening the door, delivering his jokes through a series of insults to the audience and some improv. He'd delivered most his lines and worked his way through a row of patrons and was about to head for the stage.

Then someone's cell phone went off with one of those long, musical ring tones. Richard raised his head and cried out, "Chimes? Do I hear chimes?" He then turned around and made a beeline for the person with the cell phone. "The porter will answer the door for knocking, but NOT for chimes!!"

As he drew nearer to her, he saw that she was highly embarrassed and uncomfortable and decided to not get in her face or identify her further to the rest of the audience and instead turned around (despite the other audience members pointing at the owner of the offending phone) and said, "Must have been my imagination."

He is of the opinion that the woman probably won't bring her cell phone into the theater for at least the next six months. Meanwhile the audience showered him with appreciative hoots and applause.

The show must go on

It's happened to every group. An actor is suddenly not available for any of a number of reasons and the show must go on.

This weekend, the actress playing Lady Macbeth awoke at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday with a violent bout of food poisoning. Within hours it was obvious she was not going to be able to perform at 2 p.m. because it showed no signs of abating.

Fortunately, there was a solution at hand. The actor playing Macbeth, David Blixt, is married to a fine actress that he originally met at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival many years ago. The two of them had performed as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in repertory for several years until she became pregnant. While it had been a few years since she had performed it, she still had the lines memorized.

So Jan Blixt took the stage without a script, filling in with less than three hours notice to get to the theater (thankfully she was in Ann Arbor and not her home in Chicago), learn the blocking, and rework some of the scenes. She had memorized a different cut, but the actors were able to work around her and she did an absolutely beautiful job. It was truly impressive work on her part.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Macbeth postscript

We love musicals that leave us humming the tunes for days.

I'm finding that the words of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with the voices of David Blixt and Pamela Lewis have been echoing in my head all week. Some of their lines have even slipped from my lips in my daily banter with friends.

They are two very fine actors. And that's understatement.

Henry V

It would be easy in today's world to over-politicize a play like Henry V. The brilliance of Ed. Simone's production at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival is that he provides all the elements for a political statement but leaves it in the audience's hands for interpretation.

Art is most compelling when it leaves room for the perceiver to enter into the work and to feel and think something of their own accord. When the artist does everything for the audience, it leaves them empty and uninterested. It's why agitprop theater is so rarely effective except in the hands of those playwrights and directors who understand subtlety and understatement.

I sometimes tease my husband because when I talk about the worst shows I've ever seen (and thankfully those are far fewer than the good shows I've seen), he was involved in two of them. One of them left me cringing because it was jingoistic and devoid of any true emotions. It was like an extended propaganda show where real characterization was sacrificed--by both the playwright and the director--to a cliched patriotism.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival production of Henry V falls on the opposite end of this spectrum. Yes, all the famous lines are present. Harry exhorts them again into the breach and later stirs them to action with his band of brothers speech that has since inspired military leaders from George Washington to the modern-day Marine Corps.

However, the lines are spoken from the heart and Director Ed. Simone makes brilliant use of lighting and special effects to show us how Harry struggles behind the cold, hard commands he must issue to prosecute a war.

And yes, he wants you to draw comparisons between this highly religious king who goes to war because he believes it is God's will to do so and the current affairs found in the headlines of today's newspapers. However, it is metaphor and not exact correlation that he seeks with this production, which is what makes it so powerful.

It's a fast-moving play that will appeal to people who like spectacle with their theater. The actors and technical staff create impressions of battle scenes, flickering televisions, and huge propaganda posters that are lowered from the flies. The original pro-Henry poster is nearly three times the size of the king himself and is later replaced by a smaller, anti-war poster out of France.

However, Henry V is not simply a war play. It is also a play about a leader and what makes him a leader. Part of this question gets examined in the scenes with the friends Harry left behind. Ed. Simone brings in parts of Henry IV, part II to show more of Falstaff and the decadent lifestyle to which Harry had once subscribed.

Despite the additions, this is a play that moves very quickly. It's only two hours with intermission and the pacing throughout the show is intense.

This is a modernization that works extremely well in large part because the modernization serves the story, the story isn't made slave to a political statement or news broadcast.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

More on Macbeth

I'm heading out to see Henry V for the second time tonight and will write more about that after doing so. The Jackson Citizen-Patriot called it "exhilarating" and I'm inclined to agree with the critic. However, that's worthy of a link and a more in-depth discussion once I've seen the show again. Ah, if only a critic could have the luxury to see every show more than once.

But for now, back to Macbeth.

Macbeth can be a challenging show to put on because it has been done so often. Everyone who does it wants to leave his or her own thumbprint on the production. Sometimes that's effective, sometimes it isn't.

There are several creative touches in this production--though I won't claim they are "new" just that they are different and can be classified as nontraditional. The Michigan Shakespeare Festival production places a lot of emphasis on the supernatural. It's something that makes sense historically. King James, for whom this show was written, had a fascination with the occult. He was a true believer and explored witchcraft with a great fervor. It's an aspect of Shakespeare's play that would have held great appeal to him.

This show makes the Weird sisters three war widows--though that is purely subtext and not at all overt. They're young, sexy women who have a pervasive presence in the show. They're less manipulators than encouragers. They've taken a hand in the action, but they don't steal away free will.

This lends itself to quite a few visual treats. The costume and scenic design is par excellence. The show is heavy in blacks and silvers with splashes of color that make things pop out. If anyone had any doubt that Cory Reiger is a costume genius, they should go see this show. His work in this and Henry V is just phenomenal.

Another non-traditional aspect of this show is the treatment of the Macduff-Malcolm and Lady Macduff scenes. The director, John Neville-Andrews, split the two scenes so that they both occurred on the stage at the same time in a series of interjects that bounce between the two scenes. It gives you more time to care about the people who are about to be murdered and the heavy toll it takes on Macduff (nor does it hurt that the family is brought out in the first act and the audience is able to witness the affectionate, playfulness between family members). I have always enjoyed Paul Molnar's acting and his performance as Macduff when he learns of his family's slaughter has brought tears to my eyes every night.

The show's "soundtrack" is also incredibly well-done. The composer used "found" instruments such as glass jars, chains, garbage bins, and other items to create music that is played throughout the show. Three different actors rotate in and out, playing the different themes that create an eerie feel to the show. It's music that is so well-done that it almost slips into your sub-conscious. You forget you're listening to music, but it puts you right where the director wants you.

Perhaps the greatest beauty of this production of Macbeth is that everything works so well together. Every aspect--costumes, scenery, acting, directing--has been given passionate attention making the show a stunning experience.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Maternal pride & Macbeth

I've started several blog entries in my head and I've simply resigned myself to the idea that I'll need to do several posts or none at all. There is so much that I want to talk about that I keep waiting to write until I have time to address all points--and that simply isn't going to happen.

I've now seen the Macbeth performances three times and plan to see it each time it goes up (which will be three more times this weekend and twice the following weekend). Every time I watch it, I notice something different.

First and foremost, of course, I'm a mom and wife and when my guys are on stage, I have a hard time tearing my eyes away from them to watch the other action. It isn't that they're stealing focus, it's that love draws the eye.

I'm very pleased that the Shake Fest has been a good experience for my son. I won't begin to make a statement about whether or not he's a good actor--I have absolutely no objectivity on that question nor do I wish to be objective about it. However, I will comment on it having been a good experience for him. There are so many outstanding actors in this show and he's been able to work with many of them. He's learned far more about stagecraft this summer than his father and I have taught him in four years of drama classes.

More importantly, he's gained confidence. He's discovered that he is talented and likeable--something his parents have tried telling him, but that he needed to find out for himself. It's part of the glory of theater--in particular for young people. When you're out there, you've got to come through. No one else can do it for you and no one else can suffer the consequences if you don't perform. It is also a cooperative environment in which everyone wants to see everyone else do well because then it is a better show. It creates a nurturing, extremely powerful environment.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ransom of Red Chief

I managed to sneak in a show last weekend! It almost felt like a novelty after the past few weeks of seeing nothing.

I saw the show the way one should see a family show--with a child.

O'Henry's short story is by far one of my favorite short stories. It's quick, it's fun, it's got a biting sense of humor. It's also one that would seem to lend itself well to a stage treatment. The adaptation done at Riverwalk--one by Anne Coulter Martens--dates itself far more than the timeless short story.

It's a version that seems to have been written in the day when three characters and an 80-minute show would have been insufficient for theatrical audiences. The script instead takes a very elegant short story and lengthens it into two acts with a whole host of characters that aren't all that important to the plot or to the theme.

So while the script weakened the short story by watering it down with too much else, the performance of the play succeeded in being a delightful children's show that entertains families. I was also especially impressed with the performances of Nic and Lexie Roberts as Red Chief and a young girl in the park. Both of them had tons of charisma and approached their roles with great energy and enthusiasm.

The adults in the cast also did well with what little the script had to offer them. Gordon Hicks as one of the crooks did a wonderful job of catching the archetype of a smooth-talking con man who just can't quite make things go his way.

The costumes were also fantastic, staying true to the period while communicating much about the characters of the show.

What's more important--the children attending the show seemed to have a blast and take great delight in watching a child beat up an adult.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I suppose given the explosive growth of theater in the Lansing area, it should come as no surprise that summers are no longer "down times" for local theater.

Personally I've not seen much theater for the past three weeks, but certainly not because there weren't a lot of options available. I'm sorry that I missed many of the shows that went on in the past few weeks, but I'm not sorry that I've been able to have some down time and mentally recharge.

When I was at the theater critics conference this past year, one of the things that several of the speakers, most notably John Lahr of the New Yorker, had to say was that critics can't burn themselves out by seeing too much theater. He postulated that if you're seeing 100 shows a year, you're not going to be able to be a good critic. There's some truth to that. When do you have time to think about what you've seen when you're seeing three to five shows every week?

Not that I'm seeing quite that many. I saw 90-some shows this past year as well as several other types of performances. Eventually, some of the shows start to blur.

Granted, there are others that still stick out in my mind, in part because they made me think or because I connected with them on a greater than surface level. I wouldn't want all theatrical experiences to be of that level--sometimes I just want to be entertained--but I'm always grateful for shows that take me outside of the norm.

Peppermint Creek's Pillowman certainly did that for me this year. Had I been blogging then, it probably would have gotten several entries because I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was an absolutely stunning production and even the memory of it is heart-wrenching.

I was attracted by Icarus Falling's Fatal Error. It was one of those shows where you have to sit back and trust that it will unravel itself before its over. If you try to figure it out while its in progress, it would be an exercise in frustration. It had its flaws, but it's a show I'd love to see workshopped and done again.

I was also really taken by some shows I saw while in Los Angeles: specifically Kabara Sol and Deaf West's Zoo Story and Krapp's Last Tape. The former is a show I'd love to see done here if a group could find actors skilled in movement and eerie choreography. The lead actress would also have to be extremely talented, but we have many such talents locally and I don't doubt that role could be filled. The Deaf West plays fascinated me because of the way they interpret for the hearing.

In general, I was fascinated by stage movement this year. It's also why I was so delighted by the two shows I saw at The Gate: Once on This Island and The Disconnected. Both of them relied heavily on visual storytelling through movement and body language.

It was also a treat to see the very lush Florencia en el Amazonas at MSU. It was a gorgeous opera with fantastic storytellers singing each part. Even my 9-year-old was mesmerized.

All right, enough meandering. Tomorrow I'll try to write about some of the plays I've seen in the past few weeks: primarily Love Person and the Summer Circle shows.

Monday, July 9, 2007

July already?

Ah, I'm very behind on posting. Between traveling for a writing project and then being ill for two weeks, I'm far behind on everything.

Lots to say, lots going on, so little time!

I'll try to get back on posting this week.

(I'll also try to figure out why Blogger isn't letting me enter a title...)